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Change is Coming

By Daniel Ladue

It was a pleasure to spend the morning with a diverse, animated and intelligent group of professionals discussing a broad range of topics relating to the state of business in the Northeast corner of New York State. Buzz words like challenging, optimistic, transitional, weird, super difficult, transformative, and challenging helped drive the momentum for a lively three-hour discussion.

Joining me, representing government, education, theater, technology, and medicine were:

Michelle Friedman, Director of Careers and Technical Education at CVES.

Billy Jones, New York State Assemblyman;

Michele LeBeau, President/COO for UVMHN at CVPH and Alice Hyde Medical Center;

Alissa Momot, Marketing Coordinator for TwinState Technologies;

Jerrod Olsen, Director of Operation for the Strand Center for the Arts;

Andy Sepcie, Vice President of Operations for Monaghan Medical;

Christina Ubl, Owner/Partner for Clute Wealth Management.

Shifting Narratives

The year 2023 had been a good year for everyone, although challenges exist across the spectrum.

For Christina Ubl, the fact that the Stock Market “behaved” was a very good thing. Clute Wealth Management is fortunate there is strong public support for the well-known 40-year-old investment company. Fully staffed, the local business fared well this year.

“It was a weird year,” commented Jerrod Olsen. The Strand shifted from a Board of Directors based management style to that of a co-directorship. Although state and federal money decreased, the slush fund that was provided during the height of COVID helped the art center get to the point where the Strand is “staying afloat” as it increases its offerings in educational and theater programs.

Billy Jones reiterated that the influx of COVID money was a “tremendous boost” to many businesses, but that it was “a one-time shot.” He cautioned everyone there is no more state and federal money coming. Already, the New York State budget is in a nine-billion-dollar deficit.

“We were able to offset taxes a lot because of the inflow of money and it got us to where we should be,” commented Michelle Friedman. “But a cliff is coming.”

Alissa Momot explained, “In 2023, our business thrived, showcasing our ability to innovate, adapt, and provide top-notch security, communication and productivity solutions in an ever-changing digital landscape.

“We need people,” Jones said. “We need teachers, plumbers, nurses, support staff. The workforce staffing shortage is a challenge. There are 8.7 million open jobs in the country at this moment. Everywhere we go we have an issue. We need to get people here.”

“COVID killed our workforce,” said Olson. Much of the help for the Strand Center Theater came from SUNY. Students in theater programs were the finest interns in the area. And it was free. “We were heavily reliant on students,” he said.

Momot detailed TwinState’s proactive approach to hiring. “We have expanded our recruitment efforts, successfully attracting talent from different states, exemplified by a recent hire relocating from Florida. This outreach has not only broadened our talent pool but has also enriched our workforce with diverse perspectives and experiences.”

Friedman commented that COVID changed the perspective on career education. “Education in general trades is at a high, and each one of our programs has a waiting list. CVES has seen an explosion in numbers entering its programs. There is interest from business partners from shadowing to paid internships. At the end of the day, everyone is going to work. In the past we focused on ’Where are you going to college?’ when we should have been asking ‘What do you see yourself doing and how do we get you there.’” There are few plumbers or electricians, trades that pay rather handsomely. Training a new generation of young people to take over from an aging work population is good for the students and good for the community. The tide is turning. More than three generations of children have lived under the stigma of being a “BOCES boy.” The pandemic shifted that narrative.

Conversation was lively. Ubl explained Clute Wealth Management recruited from a job fair, something it never had to do. Jones was strong in his language: “Bottom line is that the federal government has failed us. A wave of immigrants could have solved many of our problems, but Congress has failed to enact reasonable immigration legislation. We need people. We should have seen this coming. Families are far smaller than they were in the past. Twenty percent of the job force has been lost to attrition.”

LeBeau addressed the issue of absenteeism in the workplace. “On any given day we must make do with the staff we have. We are already understaffed, so this presents a challenge because of the specific and specialized work that staff does. We make do, but it is not a perfect situation.”

J1 Visa programs are an obvious solution, but New York State and Federal restrictions make getting people here extremely difficult. Friedman spoke of highly qualified teachers from Montreal who apply to CVES and are told they can’t be hired because of rigid certification issues within the State.

There are more available jobs than there have been in decades, but getting people to the North Country is a challenge. People are adjusting and have made accommodations. Restaurants have reduced hours. Hotels clean less often. Jones summed up the conversation: “There are lots of opportunities, but we’re up against businesses who pay more. Getting people here is not easy.”

Buy North American

It’s a challenging time geopolitically. The war in Israel is an issue, as is China. Questioning Monaghan’s global exposure, the company has made great strides to bring everything back into the United States. “It may be more expensive, but people are willing to pay for it,” commented Sepcie.

“Buy North American,” asserted Jones. This issue “makes our relationship with our friends to the north all that more important. We take that relationship for granted. We are like minded countries, the oldest allies of each other. We need to further extend this partnership. In an uncertain world, I’d rather see a supply chain coming from Canada.”

Sepcie pointed out that companies are now publicizing their supply chain and customers can see where the supplies come from. He emphasized that Monaghan is using that model so their customer base can make more informed decisions.

When You Know Better, You Do Better

Diversity dominated our discussion of Environmental Social Governance. It’s a word that means different things for different people in different circumstances.

“We have focused on it for years,” said Ubl. “It’s very important to us.” Sepcie reported that bringing in people from different backgrounds and ethnicities is important, but getting them here and keeping them is difficult. The North Country hovers at a four percent non-white population which likely deters “others” from moving into the area. “It’s difficult for them to find a voice,” one of our members thoughtfully added.

LeBeau commented that diversity is a real issue at CVPH and Alice Hyde. Many Filipina nurses work in Malone, and many patients come south from Quebec and eastern Ontario for services at either hospital. There, religion, gender issues, advanced age, socio-economic status, and language are significant and must be addressed each time staff encounter someone quite different from themselves.

Diversity at the Strand meant an entirely different thing. Olson happily reported they have been able to offer a variety of programming and educational opportunities. Partnering with other groups has allowed organizations to host their own events at the theater, thus broadening their range of opportunity.

Still, diversity poses its own set of issues. Teaching staff is required to acknowledge where a student currently identifies on the gender scale. These decisions don’t always align with the general population. “It’s awkward, but you don’t want to offend someone,” Friedman emphasized. “We have a bias we don’t even realize we’re bringing to the table. Having these conversations more frequently helps level the playing field.”

A Culture of Change

Generative Artificial Intelligence (AI) is real. A quick scan through the literature suggests that a large part of the population is wary of it. What will it do to their jobs? What will it do to humankind?

Ongoing digital transformation is absolutely essential to stay on top in most fields today. Discussion became animated when Friedman brought up the topic of Singularity—that hypothetical future point when Artificial Intelligence becomes more intelligent than humans. All at our Forum’s table agreed that moment will come sometime this decade and become explosive in the 2030s.

“Our people are ripe for change,” said Sepcie. “The next few years are going to alter the human landscape. In order to embrace that you have to build in a culture of change, and we are doing that all the time. We are upgrading our EOP system and integrating a lot of different systems into that. We are making smart equipment so we can understand what is happening. All of this is going to transform our efficiencies.”

Monaghan Medical has maintained a policy of staying current with emerging technologies. “Quelling the concerns of employees who feel they may lose their jobs has required us to think outside the box as we plan ahead”. Sepcie was enthusiastic about AI’s possibilities. “We have a supreme advantage,” he said. “What will it conceptualize when we ask it a question?”

All agree that AI must be used wisely, that social contact is still necessary. What Singularity means is still anyone’s guess. “Generative AI is a little scary,” commented Friedman. There are those who believe it will replace 50% of the workforce in the next seven - ten years.” Having said that, “We are embracing it head on. We just released out Generative AI policy for the workplace.”

LeBeau introduced an app to her staff that reacts and responds to an employee’s cell phone. “It can data and answer a plethora of questions. There’s some fun stuff out there and I find if you ask your staff to be on the edge of it, play with it, test it, tell me if you like it or don’t like it, it allows them to be a part of the decision process. AI will change people a lot.”

The upcoming years are “super exciting,” Momot stated. “Because of emerging technologies, TwinState is positioned well to provide the same user experience or better than that of older and larger companies and more people working from home will save gas and help the environment.”

Our round table discussions could have gone on for many hours. Thoughts and ideas bounced around the group, and it was invigorating and fun to listen to the range of opinions by a wonderfully diverse group of professionals. It was likely that each Forum group was the same. If so, the North Country is in mighty good hands.

Back Row: Jerrod Olson, Michele Friedman, Andy Sepcie, Billy Jones. Front Row: Michelle LeBeau, Christina Ubl, Alissa Momot, Dan Ladue

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